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Permanent Change: Columbia University Looks at Material Issues

Jan 2016

The Columbia University Conferences on Architecture, Engineering and Materials were part of a multi-year project to explore the changing limits of new and existing materials. The fourth in a series, the conference on plastics called “Permanent Change” was assembled by Dean Mark Wigley and Professor Michael Bell of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). It was held on Columbia’s campus March 30 through April 1, 2011. Previous conferences focused on glass, concrete and metals.

Bringing together more than 300 attendees and 45 presenters, including a wide range of leading architects, engineers, scholars, students and faculty, the conference explored the boundaries between architecture, engineering and material science through symposia, studios, and exhibitions in intensely focused investigations. Containing information that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, a detailed timeline of the history of the development of plastics filled the walls of a display room on the way into the auditorium at Columbia’s Avery Hall. The main goal of the conference was to ask the questions, ‘How is a new generation of professionals and manufacturers fusing engineering and architectural practices?’ and ‘How do new materials and material concepts change our professions?’

On July 1 of this year, a special launch event was held at the Center for Architecture in New York to announce the release of a new book covering the conference proceedings. Edited by Michael Bell and Craig Buckley, the book called, “Permanent Change: Plastics in Architecture and Engineering” has now been published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Today’s architects are expected to know more about materials than ever before and young people joining the profession must be equipped to practice in an era when understanding traditional materials used 100 years ago is simply no longer adequate. Computer processing power now enables buildings to be designed like sailboats, and new design tools demand new materials including high performance polymers. A working understanding of design now calls for a working understanding of science and chemistry as well.

There is a long history of working relationships between industries that produce materials and the design professionals who select and specify those materials. There exists a natural co-dependency between designers who choose products and building owners who demand products that perform as they expect at a cost they are willing to pay. The objective of course is to solve design problems and achieve the environmental, economic and social goals of sustainability that we determine necessary, with as little negative impact on the planet as possible.
The Vinyl Institute is a trade organization consisting of large PVC resin manufacturers. These are the people who take common salt and a petroleum component (typically natural gas) and make an inert white powder, very much like cake flour. Taking the cake flour analogy a little further, that resin is then used by hundreds of downstream product manufacturers to ‘bake a cake’ that might be wire and cable insulation, or flooring, reflective roofing membranes, carpet backing, furniture or upholstery, water pipe, or thousands of other useful products. Why would the Vinyl Institute want to be involved in this conference, and why would their members want to make the investment to sponsor Permanent Change?

As the main sponsor of the event, The Vinyl Institute sought to build new and durable alliances with influential partners in design and materials through a highly credible path into a world-class university system. Utilizing Columbia’s position to help set the benchmark for the higher education of architects and engineers in design, materials, applications and innovation, the conference associated the PVC industry with some of the best and brightest minds in the field. Other sponsorship goals were to facilitate and foster innovation and the dissemination of new ideas for growth of markets and product development. Some important takeaways resulting from the conference included the following:

 

  1. Architects and designers, both at the professional and student level, receive limited instruction about polymers. A common belief is that plastic is basically one material, rather than a complex and talented family of many different materials made possible not by geometry, but by chemistry. This often leads to misunderstandings, misapplications and underutilization.
  2. Architects ‘synthesize’ concepts and ideas, and they tend to operate toward the riskier side of design. Engineers ‘analyze’ concepts using the principles of physics and science, gravitating toward safety. While both professionals tend to think differently about a problem and assimilate information differently, amazing and useful outcomes are possible when they work well together.
  3. There is a fundamental shift going on in design and construction, made possible by computers that product manufacturers should watch closely. This includes not only form-giving design, but also the design of new and unique materials made possible through the selection of high performance polymers and fiber reinforcements.
  4. There is a tendency today for design professionals to look to ‘checklists’ like green building rating systems as they design. But that is becoming more difficult to do as materials knowledge becomes deeper and more nuanced.
  5. Materials efficiency equals molecule efficiency, and durability is a virtue in terms of sustainability. So a durable, recyclable bundle of molecules, bound up in a product made of plastic may in fact be a better environmental choice than a product that ends up in the solid waste stream.
  6. The way young design professionals are educated is important. They benefit when they are exposed to ideas and experiences that go beyond the traditional.
  7. ‘Natural’ and ‘synthetic’ are not as they first appear. All building materials have some aspects of ‘nature’ as well as inputs from the hands of people, whether through mining, processing, cutting, shaping, formulating, coating, laminating, etc. As Dean Wigley said during the conference, “No material is more natural than plastic.”
  8. There is a growing focus on reducing carbon pollution. Materials that reduce dependence on carbon, by limiting their carbon footprint across entire life cycles, and helping to reduce carbon emissions by performing well in intended applications, are probably the best choices.

Plastics, including vinyl, have become the most ubiquitous and increasingly permanent materials in construction. The material capabilities of plastics, both as a generic material and as specific polymers, and the processes that underlie them, suggest a potential to reshape construction and the roles of architects and engineers in construction. While plastics are perhaps the most intensively engineered building materials today, we are still in the early stages of understanding them in terms of their potential applications and uses.
The Permanent Change conference shed new light on these materials and their implications for the fields of architecture and engineering. Materials that enable lightweight, durable, easily molded, re-formable shapes have become a permanent measure at a watershed moment in design.

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